In three seasons as Merrimack College head hockey coach, Chris Serino has thrived as a loud, blunt, tell-it-like-it-is taskmaster. For that reason, the way in which he informed his team this week of being diagnosed with throat cancer came as no surprise.
The announcement, however, most certainly did.
Just days after doctors discovered a malignant tumor in his neck, Serino, 52, wasted no time in delivering the disturbing news to his team during Tuesday’s first preseason meeting.
— Merrimack forward Anthony Aquino
In typical Serino style, the Peabody resident and father of five called on his keen sense of humor to soften the initial shock.
“I told them, ‘I have bad news and good news,'” said Serino, who is scheduled to begin cancer treatments next week. “I told them, ‘The bad news is I have cancer in my throat. The good news is I can’t yell at you that much anymore.'”
His punchline was met with a stunned silence throughout the locker room. Days later, Merrimack players, fellow coaches and school administrators are still trying to come to grips with the situation.
“One minute he’s talking about curfew, the next he’s saying he was diagnosed with throat cancer,” said senior Ryan Kiley. “Nobody really said anything. Our jaws just hit the floor. We were all shocked.”
Sophomore Marco Rosa added, “It came as a huge surprise. No one would have expected it. Coach looks invincible to us. He’s someone we all look up to, something like a father. That’s why it this so tough to deal with.”
Considered more than just a coach by many of his recruits, Serino realized the news would be particularly tough to deal with for most of the players. Therefore, he decided the earlier he confided with the team the less of a distraction it would be by October’s season opener.
“They were silent — for once,” said a smiling Serino, recalling the locker room scene. “I think the kids look at me as someone always in charge of the situation, who knows what’s going on. In this case I don’t, so that’s why I told them right away in order to get going about our business. We’ve got a great team and we’re ready to go. That’s the way I want it to stay.”
Junior Anthony Aquino, who along with fellow captains Tim Foster and Nick Parillo was informed by Serino almost immediately after the diagnosis, said the team as a whole remains stunned but is committed to its task at hand.
“It was a big shock to the players, especially the freshmen and rookies who are just starting their careers,” Aquino said. “It’s going to be tough and may be a bit of a distraction but hopefully not that much. The Maine coach [Shawn Walsh] has it a lot worse, and they were able to handle it well last year and finish second. Hopefully, we can do the same.”
Rosa says the Warriors can turn to Serino’s courageous approach in dealing with the disease as motivation whenever they may face adversity this season.
“What he’s going through will be twice as tough as anything we go through this season,” Rosa said. “He’s a great inspiration for us. He’s in a fight for his life, and we can use that as an example. The whole team is just thankful, though, that it seems like it was caught in time.”
With the severity of his treatments still unclear, Serino told the team he plans to actively participate in its preseason regimen without disruption. The Warriors won’t take to the practice ice for another three weeks.
If any extended absence is called for, newly promoted associated head coach Mike Doneghey will be in charge with assistants Stu Irving and Louis Finocchiaro prepared to take on additional responsibilities.
“There probably will be days that he’ll be sick and not going to be here,” said Doneghey, a former Merrimack player beginning his third season under Serino. “The good thing is things are already in place for this year and next year, too. It’s not like last year when we had nine freshmen coming in. We’re ready to go.”
Not surprisingly, Serino, who also serves as an alumni liaison for the school, has received the complete support of the college’s administration.
“Chris is a very important part of our community, as anybody could tell,” said Merrimack President Richard Santagati. “He’s exhibited extraordinary enthusiasm for our school and is a great advocate for our mission and for what Merrimack College is all about.
“We don’t see any changes ahead. He’s our coach. We’ll take whatever steps he feels is necessary, but Chris will continue to do what he does best. I think that’s what he needs to do, too.”
Athletic Director Bob DeGregorio says Serino’s positive attitude will eventually eliminate any lingering shock over the news throughout the school’s entire athletic program.
“This is awful but his attitude is great,” DeGregorio said. “We’re all going to have the same attitude about it.”
This article originally ran in the Friday, August 31 edition of the Lawrence (Mass.) Eagle-Tribune.